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Theatre in Review: The Price of Thomas Scott (Mint Theater Company)

Donald Corren, Tracy Sallows. Photo: Todd Cerveris.

As it did with the Irish playwright Teresa Deevy, the Mint has launched an initiative, "Meet Miss Baker," to retrieve the works of Elizabeth Baker, who went from office typist to "one of the most widely discussed playwrights in England," or so said the Christian Science Monitor. We can be thankful for the introduction, but, for the moment, it is only that. Baker is an interesting woman -- among other things, her life was marked by a wanderlust that took her to the South Seas -- and her work shows a probing interest in the moral and political issues of her time. But until we learn more, we'll have to remain nodding acquaintances, as The Price of Thomas Scott, a 1913 work heretofore lost to the mists of time, is a dramatically inconclusive offering.

Thomas Scott operates a London millinery shop -- the action unfolds in the back room, a lovely cream-and-green interior by Vicki R. Davis -- where the star employee is his daughter, Annie, "the best hat trimmer in West London" according to a male admirer. Not that the work brings her much satisfaction: To please the paying patrons, who can never have too many roses or feathers, Annie must turn out one vulgar, overdecorated creation after another. (The costume designer, Hunter Kaczorowski, has come up with some real lulus to prove the point.) She dreams of fleeing to Paris, where she would properly learn her trade before returning home: "I'd have a shop, a showroom, you know -- in Bond Street or Sloane Street, and I'd simply -- bust up the town."

Annie is stifled in other ways, too. Thomas, a pillar of the Methodist Church, is genial, even kindly, on the surface, but he is a one-man crusade against enjoyment, which he considers sinful. He opposes dramatic readings -- even Shakespeare at the neighborhood chapel. He thinks of public dances as invitations to perdition. Liquor, of course, is verboten; of a local grocer who obtained a license to sell alcohol, he says, "He sold his soul, I tell you, for filthy lucre." (What with lines like that, he often sounds like a character in a gaslit melodrama; he's the kind of man for whom the term "den of iniquity" rolls off the tongue effortlessly.) His main leisure interests appear to be a pair of programs known as Band of Hope and Christian Endeavour. "You can't have too much goodness anywhere," he says, an attitude that leaves Annie with little in the way of opportunity for amusement or romance. In one of the more engaging sequences in The Price of Thomas Scott, she and her friends throw a little impromptu dance party -- and, hearing Thomas approach -- frantically scurry about, returning the furniture to its original layout and launching into a hymn just in time for him to enter.

Still, the millinery business is failing, there are suggestions that the neighborhood isn't what it once was, and Thomas would dearly like to sell if a taker can be found. When a friend shows up, waving around five hundred pounds, things are suddenly looking up. Thomas and his wife can retire to Tunbridge Wells, the site of their honeymoon; Leonard, their fifteen-year-old son, can attend the school that will get him into the Civil Service; and Annie can start packing for Paris. Then it becomes apparent that Wicksteed, the buyer, is a purchasing agent for a chain of dancing establishments; at first, Thomas is determined to accept the money, making the tricky moral calculation that he is selling to Wicksteed, not Courtney's, the proprietor. But soon this bit of equivocation begins to eat at him. "There's one good thing about the Courtney people -- they haven't got the drink license," says a friend. "They send out for drinks," replies Thomas, miserably.

This is the point where The Price of Thomas Scott begins to lose a sense of direction. The dramatic center is the wrestling match between Thomas and his conscience, but, much of the time the focus is on Annie and her problems. Baker writes with intelligence and an intriguingly feminist point of view, evidenced by the cool way that Annie deals with a suitor, recoiling from an offer of marriage that most young ladies her age might envy. The dialogue often charms: When a friend reveals her plans to attend a dance, Annie replies, "How simply ice cream!" But Annie doesn't intend to challenge her father's decision, making her a less-than-worthy antagonist for Thomas, whose struggle mostly happens offstage. The elements of a strong conflict have been assembled, but the author never puts them to use; indeed, the play, which runs only ninety minutes, goes dark at the exact moment when it should really get going.

Under Jonathan Bank's silken direction, a fine cast extracts all the drama to be found in these rather placid doings. Donald Corren's Thomas is a gentle, modest figure whose deep-dyed faith is a source of both strength and comedy. (Looking at a young lady whose gown ends about a quarter-inch below her clavicle, he wonders, "Your father doesn't mind you wearing a low dress?") He sinks believably into depression upon realizing the implications of his deal with Wicksteed and rises to impressive oratorical heights when attacking those who would serve both god and mammon. Emma Geer's Annie is a nascent modern woman, armed with considerable intelligence as well as an independent spirit. ("I wish I knew how far conscience should take you," she says, sighing, as she contemplates Thomas' agony.) If Annie isn't as powerful a presence as she might be, blame the playwright.

Other nice contributions are by Mark Kenneth Smaltz as a neighbor who notes that Thomas' "conscience is bigger than he is"; Mitch Greenberg as Wicksteed, who is forced to concede that "Mr. Scott does not much like the idea of these halls of memory being made into halls of pleasure"; Tracy Sallows as Thomas' compliant, yet observant, wife; Andrew Fallaize as a piece of husband material who reacts to Annie's rejection in surprisingly tough-minded fashion; and Ayana Workman as Annie's friend, Lucy, who, with a single dismissive glance, reveals exactly what she thinks of Annie's dutiful-daughter role.

The design values at the Mint leap forward from production to production: In addition to all those hats, Kaczorowski's costumes are marked by many observant details. Christian DeAngelis' lighting, except for a couple of odd splashes of saturated colors, is pleasingly restrained. Jane Shaw's sound design brings the life of the street -- bells and horse's hooves -- into the room; her musical arrangements are equally apt.

But The Price of Thomas Scott is so lacking in punch that Bank adds a surprisingly hokey bit of staging to the curtain call, which briefly kicks the action several decades into the future. It seems a tacit admission that this piece, for all its virtues, is a little bit limp. Anyway, we've met Miss Baker; next time, let's hope she has more to say for herself. -- David Barbour

(28 February 2019)

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